I Was The Victim Of A Deepfake Porn Plot Intended To Silence Me

It started with a misinformation campaign to discredit me as an investigative journalist. Then my face was edited into a porn video and they doxxed me.
Rana Ayyub
HuffPost UK

I get a lot of hate on social media. I’m an investigative journalist but I am also somebody who is seen as anti-establishment, and being a Muslim woman as well, I tick all the boxes.

The online world has always been a difficult place for me to navigate because those who aren’t able to find flaws in my work seek to discredit me with misogynistic statements and abuse. People have called me ‘the most abused woman in India’. If I even put one full stop on Twitter, I get a thousand replies.

I always tried to ignore it by telling myself it’s only online hate and it would never translate into offline abuse.

But in April this year, that changed.

An eight-year-old Kashmiri girl had been raped and there was outrage across the country. The nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was marching to support the accused. I had been invited to speak on the BBC and Al Jazeera about how India was bringing shame on itself by protecting child sex abusers.

The next day, a series of fake tweets, claiming to be from me, started circulating on social media. ‘I hate India’, ‘I hate Indians’, ‘I love Pakistan’, they read. Another tweet said ‘I love child rapists and if they are doing it in the name of Islam I support them.’

Rana Ayyub

These screenshots had been edited to look like they were coming from my verified handle. And they were being circulated everywhere.

I was inundated with abuse. Eventually, I was forced to write a clarification on my real account to make it clear the tweets were fake and to tell people not to fall for it.

But the next day, the misinformation campaign escalated.

I met a friend for coffee and I was still reeling from the tweets, wondering why I was being targeted in such a malicious way. Then a source from the ruling BJP sent me a message to say ‘Something is circulating around WhatsApp, I’m going to send it to you but promise me you won’t feel upset.’

What he sent me was a porn video, and the woman in it was me.

When I first opened it, I was shocked to see my face, but I could tell it wasn’t actually me because, for one, I have curly hair and the woman had straight hair. She also looked really young, not more than 17 or 18.

I started throwing up. I just didn’t know what to do. In a country like India, I knew this was a big deal. I didn’t know how to react, I just started crying.

I asked him why it was circulating within political circles and he told me people within the party had been passing it on.

Before I could even gather myself, my phone started beeping and I saw I had more than 100 Twitter notifications, all sharing the video.

My friend told me to delete Twitter but I couldn’t, I didn’t want people to think this was actually me.

I went on Facebook and I had been inundated with messages there too. They were trying to derail me, every other person was harassing me with comments like “I never knew you had such a stunning body”.

I deleted my Facebook, I just couldn’t take it. But on Instagram, under every single one of my posts, the comments were filling with screenshots of the video.

Then, the fanpage of the BJP’s leader shared the video and the whole thing snowballed. The video was shared 40,000 more times.

It ended up on almost every phone in India.

It was devastating. I just couldn’t show my face. You can call yourself a journalist, you can call yourself a feminist but in that moment, I just couldn’t see through the humiliation.

It had exposed me to a lynch mob in India. People were thinking they could now do whatever they wanted to me.

The next day, they doxxed me.

Another tweet was circulated on social media with a screenshot of the video and my number alongside, saying ‘Hi, this is my number and I’m available here’.

People started sending me WhatsApp messages asking me for my rates for sex.

I was sent to the hospital with heart palpitations and anxiety, the doctor gave me medicine. But I was vomiting, my blood pressure shot up, my body had reacted so violently to the stress.

My brother flew in from Mumbai to see me in Delhi but I just couldn’t face anyone from my family. I felt so embarrassed. The entire country was watching a porn video that claimed to be me and I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

Finally, I got in touch with a high-profile feminist lawyer who agreed to take on my case. She told me I needed to be prepared for what could follow if we went to the police. India is not the most liberal country when it comes to women’s rights and sexual freedoms, so she told me to be ready for what could happen after I showed them the video.

When we went to the station, the police wouldn’t file a report. The people who were sharing this video were political and the officers weren’t prepared to take on the powerful.

There were about six men in the police station, they started watching the video in front of me. You could see the smirks on their faces.

They asked me where I was when I had first seen it. When I told them I had seen it at a cafe, they told me to go to the police station nearest to the cafe and file the complaint from there.

I couldn’t believe it. I was a woman standing in front of them who had mustered up the courage to file a complaint and they were trying to dodge it. I threatened them. I told them if they didn’t want to register a complaint then I would write about them on social media. Finally, after my lawyer told them we would go to the media, they filed the report.

That was in April. More than six months later, I haven’t heard a thing from the police. I gave my statement to a magistrate, I gave them all the screenshots, the messages that I received but there has just been absolute silence.

Eventually, the United Nations intervened. Sixteen special rapporteurs wrote to the Indian government asking them to protect me.

That brought some sanity to the situation. The government cares about its reputation internationally and surprisingly, almost immediately, I could see the abuse slowing.

But the effects have stayed with me.

From the day the video was published, I have not been the same person. I used to be very opinionated, now I’m much more cautious about what I post online. I’ve self-censored quite a bit out of necessity.

Now I don’t post anything on Facebook. I’m constantly thinking what if someone does something to me again. I’m someone who is very outspoken so to go from that to this person has been a big change.

I always thought no one could harm me or intimidate me, but this incident really affected me in a way that I would never have anticipated.

I’ve always come under fire. The only way my critics have found to discredit me is through misogyny and character assassination.

I get called Jihadi Jane, Isis Sex Slave, ridiculous abuse laced with religious misogyny. They will photoshop me in front of a minister’s house to claim I’ve been sleeping with him.

When I exposed a scandal around a high-profile murder investigation, people started putting photoshopped images of me online in sexualised positions.

When my book was published, a police officer wrote on social media I had been sleeping with my sources and using unethical methods to get information.

But this has changed me.

The irony is, about a week before the video was released, I heard an editor talking about the dangers of deepfake in India. I didn’t even know what it was so I googled it. Then one week later it happened to me.

I didn’t speak about it for a long time because I worried the larger audience would not empathise or sympathise with me but they would want to explore it more. I didn’t want deepfake to get that kind of popularity.

But unfortunately, in the last couple of weeks I’ve seen numerous deepfake videos of very high-profile female film stars, so it feels like it’s too late to prevent it.

It is a very, very dangerous tool and I don’t know where we’re headed with it.

As told to Lucy Pasha-Robinson

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird, wonderful and transformational life experiences. If you’ve got a story to share, email ukblogteam@huffpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.


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